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EgyptAir Flight That Vanished Off Radar Likely Crashed Over Water


French President Francois Hollande says the missing EgyptAir plane has disappeared over water. And now the defense minister of Greece says that its air traffic controllers were tracking the plane as it fell 22,000 feet before it disappeared. Flight MS804, which left Paris last night for Cairo, had 66 people on board.


Throughout this morning, we're hearing the latest from Paris, also from here in the U.S. and Cairo. NPR's Russell Lewis is in Birmingham Ala., from where he covers aviation issues. And with us now also is Alex Macheras. He is an aviation analyst in London who's been following the disappearance and joins us now by Skype. Welcome to both of you.

ALEX MACHERAS: Good morning.


MONTAGNE: Morning, good. Alex, let's start with you. There are reports coming out of Greece that the plane was acting unusually. What do you know so far about that?

MACHERAS: There are. Well, good morning. Since we last spoke, we've had a few new developments from the Greek defense minister who has said that this aircraft, the Airbus A320 that was involved - and it has been involved in clearly what's looking to be a catastrophic event. Just a reminder - still no debris found yet and still no crash site located as far as the media are aware. Whether they know that, you know, that's a separate thing.

But in terms of what the Greek defense minister has just come forward to say, he says that the A320 involved was spinning and at one point did a whole 360 circle to the right before another 90 degree to the left, all of this while falling 22,000 feet. Now, obvious, this is a terrifying image that we picture, should all of this be correct. And you know, of course, it's coming from a credible source as the Greek defense minister. But again, we have to be careful because there have been conflicting reports and contradicting each other between the Greek defense minister because it happened nearer to Greek airspace. But where it actually took place, whatever has happened, was in a Egyptian airspace.

MONTAGNE: Now, we're being very careful this morning not to report overly - you know, not to report things that are, you know, just pure speculation. But are there scenarios that are being weighed for what that would mean, what we do know?

MACHERAS: Definitely. And of course, we have to respect the fact that, you know, to keep speculation to a minimum. But equally, when we compare what's happened now - what we know at the moment in terms of being in the early stages of what could be, you know, a crash - again, just depends what the cause was. We can compare that to previous events and previous crashes that have happened and that have occurred, some similar, over, you know, the same region, for example, the Sinai bombing back in October.

Here in Europe, to be honest, the general feeling is that they're leaning towards actually this could be terrorism. Of course, it could be a million other contributing factors. But they're being very clear not to rule terrorism out. And French President Francois Hollande made it clear himself that despite not mentioning - actually, we think it's terrorism, he made it clear that they are considering all options as a cause.

MONTAGNE: Russell Lewis, I want to bring you in. The Egyptian military has begun an investigation into this disappearance. And this is a civilian flight. This is not a military flight. Why are they involved? And what steps would they be taking to find out what happened. This was, of course, just barely into Egyptian airspace.

LEWIS: Yeah, it had just crossed into the Egyptian airspace. And in Egypt, it is sort of standard protocol for the military to investigate something like this. So it's not unusual by any respect. But, I mean, I think it is important to point out that there are still more questions than answers at this point. You know, it isn't until you're able to recover the black boxes, which are actually orange - the flight data recorder, the cockpit voice recorder - you know, those pieces of the plane which would begin to fill in some of the questions that we have and to give you more information about what may have happened here.

KELLY: Russell, this is Mary Louise leaping in here. Just to follow on this question, we so far only have one source, the Greek defense minister talking about that the plane was swerving right before it dropped precipitously out of the sky. Possible causes when we've looked at these type things happening in the before? I mean, what springs to mind for me would be - it could be anything from pilot error, mechanical failure, terrorism, weather, any of those. Can we rule anything out?

LEWIS: No, you can't rule anything out. You know, it could be something like a decompression - some sort of - something happened to the plane where the plan needed to descend very, very quickly to get below 10,000 feet. And so you would expect a plane to descend rapidly. That's not an unusual occurrence. It happens fairly regularly when planes need to make emergency descents like that. You just don't often hear about it.

And so it could be something like that. Or it could be something completely unrelated. And, you know, it's also important to point out that the information that we're getting from the Greek government at the moment could actually be wrong. And as we've seen oftentimes in the early hours of plane incidents like this, the information that you get, you know, in the initial hours turns out to be very wrong once they get a clearer idea of exactly what happened.

KELLY: Russell, we've been talking about what may have been happening on that plane at the moment it dropped. Let me turn you back to what may have been happening at the airport where it took off from. This is Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, where, of course, security has been extraordinary ever since the terrorism attacks there last fall. What do we know about security there and at European airports? And what do we know about what they may be doing to tighten it even further now?

LEWIS: Well, in general, you know, the security at Paris has been at this heightened level, as you point out, since the November attacks. And it was further heightened after the Brussels attacks earlier this year. And so, you know, it continues to be something that Europe is prepared for. As we've heard from Eleanor Beardsley, our Paris correspondent, earlier in the program, that, you know, security continues to be very, very high at Charles de Gaulle.

You know, we shouldn't necessarily think that this is something having to do with Paris. It - this plane flew many different places before it got to Charles de Gaulle Airport. Just that day alone, in fact, it had flown to Tunisia, to Eritrea, back and forth to Cairo and then on to Paris. And so, you know, I mean, any of these things are possibilities that you have to look into - where this plane went and what may or may not have been put on the plane at any of those opportunities.

MONTAGNE: And Alex Macheras, we just - just very briefly, what about this type of plane? Is it considered quite safe?

MACHERAS: Definitely, one of the safest aircraft in the skies. This is an Airbus A320. And as I've been telling viewers that have been sort of listening and trying to follow today's events and this morning is that if you have flown short-haul, you almost certainly, especially in Europe, have flown on an A320. They really are the workhorse. And I've been to - working with Airbus down at their headquarters in the plant. And I - you know...


MACHERAS: ...Latest technology.

MONTAGNE: We're going to have to leave it at that. Thank you very much Alex Macheras, an aviation analyst in London. Also, we heard from NPR's Russell Lewis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.